Dear Mr. Hayes,
We note with considerable concern the meeting which you hosted at the European Parliament on Monday 28th November 2016 for an Eritrean delegation led by the country’s Information minister, Yemane Gebremeskel.
We must take issue with you for a number of reasons: –
Firstly, we question the advisability of welcoming a delegation from Eritrea and treating Eritrea as if it is a normal democratic state with fully functioning democratic institutions. The government of Eritrea is in fact a one-party military dictatorship, which has refused to implement a ratified democratic constitution or hold democratic elections. There is neither political nor religious freedom, no freedom of expression, no framework of human rights, and no rule of law, neither are there any independent courts to guarantee justice or stop the widespread use of torture and extra-judicial killings. The imposition of conscription into the military on those aged 18 or above for an unlimited period allows Eritrea’s young people to be used for slave labour in mines factories and agriculture. This situation and the prevalence of the above-mentioned crimes have all been confirmed by a UN Commission of Inquiry. Moreover, there is no sign that the Eritrean government is making any efforts to change or end these methods of societal control.
It is clear from your personal visit to Eritrea and your statement that “engagement is the Key” that you have no problem engaging with regimes that have been deemed responsible by international experts of widespread human rights abuses which may well be crimes against humanity. It is clear that, during your visit, you were not allowed by the regime to see or hear about any of human rights abuses and crimes committed which are universally reported by the many thousands of Eritrean citizens who have escaped from their country.
It is essential for the policy of “engagement” with the Eritrean regime which you advocate to be examined independently and far more critically than you appear to have done. What are the likely benefits and who is the policy likely to benefit? If the assumption behind your policy is that the actions and policies of the Eritrean government will change for the better and the abuses against their own people will stop, where is the evidence that government has changed or is changing its behaviour and human rights are now being protected?
We may make a comparison the situation of South Africa under Apartheid in the late 20th century. There were plenty of Western advocates of “engagement” with the Apartheid regime; but its policies and actions did not change as a result of friendly “engagement”. Only when deliberate policies of international disinvestment, condemnation and isolation were powerfully and widely implemented did the regime see the need to change its policies and end its human rights abuses.
You state that “by bringing everyone together for a conference, positive outcomes can be achieved.” May we assure you that regimes such as the one in Eritrea are very happy to attend conferences (even those attended by UNDP representatives) and proclaim their own versions of what is going on in their country for decades, as long as the talking continues and no one requests unhindered access to their country to see the appalling abuses they are intent upon hiding. No UN Human Rights Council officials or international inspection teams has ever been allowed to visit Eritrea. Why? Because there is too much to hide.
Eritrean leaders, whom the Commission of Inquiry believes to be responsible for crimes against humanity, will be happy to continue their inhumane practices, under the cover of “engagement” through policies which allow external investment in Eritrea’s industries and in what are termed by Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel, “natural resources”, but actually refers to minerals extracted in a manner constituting a considerable danger to both the environment and the miners involved. All who advocate “engagement” would be well advised to question who exactly benefits from this external investment. It is not the ordinary people of Eritrea.
These industries are largely staffed by National Service conscripts working in appalling conditions which many liken to slave labour. And, since the companies running these industries are largely owned by members of the Eritrean regime and military, the profits go to the regime and to foreign *entities such as international mining contactors. “Engagement” turns out to be engagement with the regime for the benefit of the regime, and certainly not for the benefit of the ordinary people of Eritrea.
If the Eritrean government is such a benign regime, and the people of that country so well led, as the Information Minister, Yemane Gebremeskel seems to suggest, why do 60,000 people flee their country every year, and why did 47,000 Eritreans seek asylum in Europe in 2015? According to Mr. Gebremeskel, the exodus of young Eritreans is due to a “lack of appropriate employment”—or even to the EU countries offering guaranteed education and political asylum. However, the real cause of this exodus is the enforced conscription into never-ending National Service in such areas as military, mining and agriculture, and the lack of political and religious freedom.
If a policy of “engagement” showed any signs of persuading the Eritrean government to end indefinite conscription, torture, political and religious oppression, many would reconsider risking their lives to escape the repression. But there are no indications that the Eritrea regime has the slightest intention of making such positive improvements; indeed, it has just confirmed that compulsory military service without time limit will continue for the foreseeable future, continues its clamp down on political and religious freedom, and is still holding many long-term prisoners incommunicado.